One of my favorite movie scores of the season is Abel Korzeniowski’s haunting work for Madonna’s “W.E.” No matter what you think of the flamboyant movie, in which lonely New Yorker Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish) obsesses over the sensational romance between the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the score perfectly captures its high-pitched emotional spirit.
With its recurring melodies — bolstered by delicate piano and cello solos — we get the back-and-forth between illusion and reality that underlies Wally’s misconception that King Edward VIII’s (James D’Arcy) abdication of the British throne for the woman he loved, chic American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), was the perfect love story of the 20th century. In fact, it was a constant struggle.
“W.E.” was a personal film for Madonna, according to the Polish-born Korzeniowski, who lives in LA and has a Golden Globe nomination for his score. “It’s about our impression from the point of view of a modern person of who the Duchess was,” he says. “And not only the Duchess, but the whole cult of celebrity and how we blow things out of proportion. You can understand why Madonna would be fascinated by this topic.”
Indeed, it’s the ultimate statement about demystification from the “Material Girl.” Yet when she first summoned Korzeniowski to her house in LA to discuss “W.E.,” and told him how much she enjoyed his score for “A Single Man,” he had no idea what was in store. “Reading the script was quite a surprise because Madonna had already put references to where she wanted my music,” he recalls. “That’s how confident she was that I was going to say yes.”
Thus Korzeniowski couldn’t resist the opportunity to write a score about the nature of romance set in two time periods and contrasting two very different but independent women: “The prevailing sense of obsession was what inspired me in ‘W.E.’ The irrational compulsion to sacrifice everything and anything for love — a love that could easily be just an illusion, a reflection of a nonexistent, fictitious object, or a repetitive answer to [a] Rorschach test taking the form of a pair of $10,000 gloves.
“Madonna intensifies this impression with the use of long tracking shots down hallways and mirrors. We can see reflections of the characters displayed on different objects, from unexpected angles, but we are not allowed to look at them directly.”
There are six recurring themes in the movie, but none functions as a traditional motif. Instead, once a theme is established the melody remains the same and relentlessly repeats. This is in tune with Madonna’s visual strategy of conveying reflections. The person doesn’t change, but the perspective does. The composer says this works more like a pop tune with a great hook rather than a conventional movie score. “And this was quite striking to me as a classical composer,” he adds. “It doesn’t need change to be interesting. For example, if you introduce a theme, you don’t need to go through harmonic changes and other means that composers use. The theme is so interesting that you want to listen to it again and again.
“The same theme can convey despair and sorrow in one scene or hope and joy in another,” Korzeniowski continues. Such was the case with the opening theme, “Six Hours,” which is played over Wallis getting kicked by her husband in the bathroom. It is then replayed in the middle to kindle a new relationship, and then at the end it is played faster and more forcefully, evoking transcendent happiness.
“W.E.’s” most important theme, however, “Abdication,” contains just a simple harmonic structure that will later become the strongest theme of all. It appears six times as a bridge between the two love stories and the two time periods.
“One of the things Madonna stressed in our discussions was that she didn’t want me to make a musical distinction between the time periods,” Korzeniowski recounts. “And this was in line with the imaginary world. In one scene we have a Sex Pistols song at a party of the Duchess and the Duke, which is completely anachronistic, but it helps us relate somehow to these people. But this anachronistic element was quite interesting to me because I ended up writing this score in a more modern way for the period piece than the modern story using electric guitar.”
Korzeniowski admits that he’s influenced by the minimalist master, Philip Glass, but that his work is much more melodic.” I always try not to overload my music with orchestration and to use only those instruments that are absolutely necessary. I try to keep it very clean and clear about what’s going on. We recorded with a 60-piece orchestra at Abbey Road Studios in London. My music lives because of real players.”